Not-So-Easy Zero Waste Goals

Most zero waste advocates (myself included), make a big point of insisting how easy it is to go zero waste, and the truth is that, for the most part, it is. However, the ease of various parts of zero waste will be different for each person – maybe one person had already stopped using paper towels for the most part and will find it easy to transition to microfiber cloths, but another might use a roll of paper towels a week and have no idea how to go about replacing them. One person might easily buy bulk every week, while another might not even have bulk available to them.

Going zero waste certainly involves stepping out of your comfort zone and developing a balance. Even though I intend to go there some day, things like tooth powder still make me cringe, yet I have already adopted some things that initially horrified me.

I recently ordered a copy of the Zero Waste Home and devoured the whole thing over the course of two days. It inspired me to really go whole hog and try to get as close to zero waste as possible. Of the five tenets of zero waste (refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot), I already have recycling, rotting, and most reusing down, but my refusing and reducing could really use some work.

Zero Waste Goal #1: (Politely) refuse things that I do not want or need!

For me, the hardest part of zero waste is refusing things. I am not an assertive person. I like to be quiet and polite and go along with everything so that nobody gets upset, annoyed, or impatient with me. Unfortunately, refusing unnecessary hand-outs requires speaking out and, as tacit acceptance is considered polite in our society, perhaps rubbing someone the wrong way. For example, the other day at the farmer’s market the very kind and friendly woman at the blueberry stand gave me a brochure. I took it, all the while thinking to myself that it was going to go directly into the recycling bin at home. I started to walk away, thought about saying something, and then gave in to my reluctance and brought it home with me. Now it clutters a surface, begging to be considered valuable so that I don’t feel so bad about not refusing it.

An opposite case of this was this morning when I went out to breakfast with some friends and the waiter gave me a straw with my water. Since I am not three years old and am capable of drinking out of a glass (heck, even Oliver can drink out of a glass with help), the idea of wasting the plastic straw and the paper wrapper was unbearable. Unfortunately, in order to refuse it, I nearly had to chase down the waiter to get him to take it back (a different one took it for me, and told me that someone else would use it, which made me glad that it wasn’t just going to be landfilled). Sure, I’m glad I didn’t waste it, but the memory also makes me cringe.

Sean is probably getting sick of me coming into his office to tell him stories about how proud I am about refusing something. “Today, I asked for a reusable cup instead of the plastic ones they have by the water.” “Today, I told the cashier I didn’t need a bag even though she had already given me one.” The truth is, I am probably only at about a 50% rate of refusal, and I am going to have to work hard at remembering why I’m doing zero waste. Perhaps rubbing a few people the wrong way here and there is worth saving piles of disposables and handouts. I’ll certainly continue to be as polite as possible about it, but we need to move away from mindless handouts and disposables. Perhaps cashiers will learn to ask if you want a bag rather than double bagging your bottle of wine and handing it to you before you have even opened your mouth to say “No thanks!”

Most of the complaints about Bea Johnson (author of the Zero Waste Home and essentially the internet mother of zero waste) are that she is rather snobbish, rude, and self-righteous. She has little sympathy for people who struggle with zero waste (in spite of her McMansion past) and is that person who gets so personally offended by things in a store that you feel the need to hide and then apologize to the poor worker who had to endure her wrath. As much as I would never be like her in that sense, it is understandable. Sometimes you just want to grab people and shake them and say, “HEY! You don’t need that many paper napkins to eat a sandwich!” But you can’t hope to change people by antagonizing them – or really at all – and I am a firm believer in the idea that a little bit of kindness and politeness goes a long way. I don’t think that speaking up and refusing is something that necessitates being impolite. Perhaps being firm is a must (“No thank you, really, I don’t need a booklet of coupons”), but I don’t think I need to make a person feel crappy to get my “No thanks” point across.

Zero Waste Goal #2: Reduce amount of food packaging consumed

I really do fail to see how a family with children could possibly have the time to eat zero waste. I love scratch cooking (pancakes and brownies from a box are virtually unfathomable to me), but it takes a minimum of 4 hours to make a loaf of bread and approximately 2 seconds to grab a plastic-wrapped loaf from a shelf, and I think when Sean and I are both working and have kids, the idea of making everything from scratch will be laughable. Even now I have trouble with it, and I am a grad student with plenty of free time.

So what does that mean for avoiding food packaging waste? The truth is, I don’t know. It is going to be a process. I did find two different sources of woodfired oven-baked Maine-grain bread that is sold in paper sleeves (hooray!), but my zero waste shopping trip today took three hours and ultimately failed because I forgot my produce bags and didn’t want the embarrassment of dropping two pounds of portabello mushrooms on the grocery conveyor belt (I should have just sucked it up, I know). I arrived home so exhausted, hungry, and defeated that the idea of spending the rest of the day cooking is repulsive to me. Oh, how easy it would be to eat ramen for dinner instead of risotto.

Zero Waste Goal #3: Try new things, step outside my comfort zone, and keep an open mind

A little while ago, I tried the ‘no poo’ method of washing my hair because I have seen some people whose hair really flourished under the treatment and baking soda and vinegar are fairly easy to purchase in cardboard and glass containers. I lasted two days and gave up. I have a sense that my foray into tooth powder will go similarly. I am used to foaming cleansers (made foamy by sodium laureth sulfate, a carcinogen) and will need to seriously buck up to get used to them. I am going to use up what I have for shampoo and toothpaste and then see where I go from there.

Other parts of my life will need some creativity as they come along, but as the goal says above, I intend to keep an open mind. Zero waste is a journey towards a virtually unattainable goal, but any waste reduction is a good waste reduction in my mind.

Is there anything in particular that you struggle with? What are your main roadblocks to approaching zero waste?

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3 thoughts on “Not-So-Easy Zero Waste Goals

  1. If it’s in Atlanta, where I live, it’s difficult to do what Bea Johnson does. I’m sure she wouldn’t move there because she and her family will obviously be overwhelmed by the waste that is produced in the city and surrounding areas. Luckily, I was able to shop at my local Joann fabric store without using a plastic bag. Maybe I could try bringing my own utensils to restaurants where I live as well and see how that works but then my family would get mad at me and accuse me of being disrespectful, knowing they don’t understand what zero waste is when I’ve tried to explain it to them.

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